Monday, 20 May 2013

21st May 2003 - My Best And Worst Day As A Celtic Fan

The 21st May 2003 is a day that brings about mixed emotions for Celtic fans.  It's a day that we are very proud of but it's also a day that broke our hearts.  It was a day that I'll never forget but it's also a day that I've tried not to look back on until now.

I think when asked about that day most Celtic fans will remember the huge numbers of Celtic fans who were in the Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla and the thousands more who made the trip without tickets.  Many will talk about Henrik Larsson's brace and the bravery of the players in difficult conditions.

Not many fans will mention the result, Bobo Balde's red card or Rab Douglas' mistake that led to the winning goal.  I'm not sure if it's just a Celtic thing or whether it's something all football fans do but all the bad memories of that day have been erased from the memory and the positives are still there.

I am one of a large number of Celtic fans who have never watched the highlights of that game.  I have saw hundreds and possibly thousands of Celtic fans on various forms of social media and message boards say that they have never watched it.  I actually have the official video, "The Road To Seville" in my parents house but as far as I'm concerned it finishes with Henrik Larsson's late winner against Boavista.

When I decided to pen this article I did consider watching the highlights but I'm not ashamed to admit that when I thought about it I got a real sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.   I honestly think the only way I will ever watch that game again is if we get to another European Final and win it.

My own personal memories of that day are faded now but I will try to piece them together.  I was eighteen at the time and went to work as normal.  I seem to remember a newspaper in the office that had a mock up on the front of Paul Lambert lifting the UEFA Cup with the headline "the picture all Celtic fans want to see tonight."

The joys of working flexi hours meant I could leave early.  After work I went home and tried to eat something and then got myself dressed for the occasion.  Shorts, Celtic top, oversized sunglasses, an oversized leprechaun hat and a beach ball seemed to be the obvious choice of attire.  Fed, watered and dressed appropriately it was beer time.

The St Comgalls Club, Larne was my venue of choice and I never saw the place look so well.  The room was jam packed with green and white.  People, flags and beach balls everywhere and everyone of them in the hoops.  I seem to remember a promotion of some continental beer at a pound a pint so I was all set.

My memories aren't great of the game itself so forgive me if some of it is inaccurate.  I could obviously search the internet for answers but I think it means more coming from memory.  I recall the first half was a cagey affair which Celtic grew into as the game progressed.  However, Porto took the lead just before the break just as we were finally starting to believe that we could win.

Many a team would have crumbled after conceding so close to half time but it seemed to give Celtic a new lease of life and they started the second half like a team who had nothing to lose.  Henrik Larsson equalised with a great header from a Didier Agathe cross.  I only remember it was Agathe with the assist as I spent most of his Celtic career praising his pace and criticising his crossing but even I had to admit he got that one spot on.

Unfortunately, it didn't last for long though and Porto took the lead again but thankfully the "King of Kings", Larsson was on top form and he equalised with another excellent header.  From there the game went into extra time.

I remember Balde's red card for what was quite a rash tackle if my memory is correct. When Bobo got sent off I still felt like we needed to find a goal as I didn't fancy a penalty shootout.  Unfortunately, after what seemed like an eternity of hanging on with ten men, Rab Douglas made his customary howler and Porto took a late lead.

My last and perhaps clearest memory of the game was a late Celtic free kick in a good position outside the box.  Shaun Maloney had been earning himself a reputation as a reliable set piece taker but on this occasion he fluffed his lines and hit possibly the worst free kick of his career.  I don't remember the final whistle, Celtic receiving their medals or Porto lifting the trophy.  All I remember was taking a private moment to get my emotions under control and heading to the bar with a friend for treble vodkas, a vodka for each trophy Celtic were going to win the following season.

It's funny when I think back to Seville as the Final itself is way down my list of memories.  When I think of Seville my first thought is the Semi-Final.  The goal Henrik Larsson scored is still my favourite moment as a Celtic fan.  Boavista had been so negative for the full game and it looked as though they were going to be rewarded with a place in the Final until the footballing God's intervened.

Other great memories were beating Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park after listening to the English media saying about how easily Blackburn were going to beat us.  There was an away goals victory over Celta Vigo and a classic 5-4 aggregate win over Stuttgart.  I will also never forget big John Hartson scoring a screamer at Anfield in the Quarter-Final to see us past Liverpool.

I have watched all of those on video and on YouTube but all I've watched of the Final is a few of the fans singing in the Fanzone.  Maybe one day I'll find it in myself to watch the game but as it stands, ten years later, it's still too painful.

Looking back on it, it was a very special time to be a Celtic fan.  We had some very talented players including one of the best in the world in Henrik Larsson.  Back then many people didn't appreciate Larsson as he was "only playing in the SPL."  After he left us he went onto Barcelona were he swung the 2006 Champions League Final in the Catalans favour, breaking the hearts of Arsenal fans all over the world and he also had a brief loan spell at Manchester United were he won over a lot of his doubters who thought he wasn't good enough for the Premier League. 

I'll always look back with fond memories of the 2003 Celtic team.  All of the players involved and the management will always have a special place in mine and every Celtic fans hearts but unfortunately I don't think I'll ever be able to look back at what was without doubt their greatest achievement, at least not with dry eyes. 

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